MIAMI Two spray-paint murals by the elusive street artist Banksy, including one that vanished last week from a North London wall, were pulled in the 11th hour from a Miami auction on Saturday.
Who owns the London mural remains a mystery, as does how it ended up in a Miami auction house shortly after going missing.
Frederic Thut, owner of Fine Art Auctions Miami, which had been due to sell the piece, has said his firm did "all necessary due diligence" to establish the ownership of the work. But the London piece and another Banksy mural were pulled nevertheless.
"Although there are no legal issues whatsoever regarding the sale of lots 6 and 7 by Banksy, Fine Art Auctions Miami convinced its consignors to withdraw these lots from the auction and take back the power of authority of these works," Thut wrote in an email. They had been due to be auctioned on Saturday.
The work at the center of the controversy was painted on a building occupied by Poundland Stores, a British retailer that sells various items for only a pound. The work, titled "Banksy: Slave Labour," shows a young boy kneeling at a sewing machine with Union Jack bunting.
The mural appeared in 2012 during Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee celebrating her 60th year on the throne. The Poundland chain was a focal point of controversy in 2010 because of allegations it sold goods made by Indian children as young as 7.
The Miami auction house has declined to say who owns the mural, valued between $500,000 and $700,000.
Banksy's trademark spray-paint stencils offering ironic social commentary are never verified, although they are hotly sought after by collectors.
Poundland was only a tenant of the property, and has condemned the removal via a spokesperson and social media.
SECOND MURAL PULLED
Also pulled from the auction was a piece titled Wet Dog, valued between $600,000 and $800,000, owned by Stephan Keszler, a New York gallery owner who specializes in Banksy's work.
The spray-painted piece shows a silhouette of a dog wildly shaking water out of its fur, and was said to have been painted in the West Bank in 2006 or 2007. It was salvaged in 2010 by Keszler and his team on behalf of the property's owner, and he later purchased it.
"We pulled it because of the hype. We did not feel comfortable in this environment," Keszler said of the decision to remove the piece from the auction. "But I think we are very happy that an auction has tried to get Banksy's street works into auction. It's a breakthrough."
Keszler declined to answer whether he represented the yet-to-be-named owner of Slave Labour.
Keszler has come under fire from critics who say he is selling stolen art. He contends the works belong to the owners of the properties where they first appeared.
"Banksy's not asking you if you're happy with the work on your house. It's your property and you can do with this whatever you want without asking Banksy, so a lot of people they destroy it, they paint over it," he said. "Some people see it's worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, so they're trying to get them removed and they're trying to sell them."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)